Kashmir’s vanishing native plants

Many ‘charismatic’ traditional plants and wildflowers of Kashmir Himalayas are threatened with extinction. Greater Kashmir senior editor Nazir Ganaie speaks to scientists and research scholars and pens an in-depth report
Prof Zeerak says that the Kashmir and Ladakh regions of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state had been rich in ethnic folklore, traditional knowledge, culture, and heritage.
Prof Zeerak says that the Kashmir and Ladakh regions of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state had been rich in ethnic folklore, traditional knowledge, culture, and heritage.Special arrangement

Kashmir region, an abode of numerous potential medicinal and traditional plants, is witnessing a diminishing number of species with experts saying that there is a lack of attention to ensure the sustainable utilisation of these prized plant species.

“Nearly 650 plant species are being used as medicine in one or the other form in Kashmir Himalayas. However, over the decades, a large number of these species have been threatened due to various anthropogenic as well as natural threats,” former Head of the Department of Genetics and Plant Breeding, SKUAST-Kashmir, Prof Nazir Ahmad Zeerak told Greater Kashmir. “Many of these ‘charismatic’ traditional plants and wildflowers are threatened with extinction.”

Prof Zeerak says that the Kashmir and Ladakh regions of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state had been rich in ethnic folklore, traditional knowledge, culture, and heritage.

“People have their traditional healthcare system, food habits, and beverages. The natural geographic barriers of the Kashmir region and Ladakh have indirectly assured such a unique position of isolation to this region from other cultures that its ethnobotany and local traditions have remained largely undisturbed,” he says. However, over the past several decades, these precious resources are now increasingly being threatened mainly because of human population pressures, climatic changes, urbanisation, changes in land use patterns, deforestation, and unplanned tourism.

“The use of plant resources for rapid commercial gains, over-harvesting, mono-cultures, rapid replacement of adapted and indigenous cultivars by modern high-yielding varieties, and the adoption of bio-hazardous production technologies have resulted in the loss of many native plant species and the landraces of all major crops thus further shrinking of the native plant genetic diversity in our food plants,” he says. “Due to the influence of scientific technologies, many of our trusted age-old ethnobotanical practices have also been abandoned.” Speaking on the issue, research scholars from the University of Kashmir (KU), Aijaz Ganie, Bilal Tali, and Aabid M Rather argue that mankind has used plants to alleviate suffering and diseases since times immemorial.

In their research, the scholars have attempted to explore and document the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants used to cure different diseases.

“We found out that either whole plants or different plant parts are used to treat various diseases. During the investigation, it was also observed that some plant species are used to treat more than one disease. Likewise, more than one plant species is used to treat a particular disease,” they informed.

They say that some of the plant species were used to treat various types of diseases.

“We also examined the ethnomedicinal use of 24 plant species, their vernacular name, and part, parts used to cure various diseases,” they informed.

RESEARCH AT CORD

Time to ensure sustainable utilisation of prized plant species in J&K

Director of the Center of Research for Development (CORD), KU, Prof Muhammad Niamat Ali told Greater Kashmir that his colleagues had been working extensively on the plant varieties and documenting their impacts and diminishing nature.

“The work of Prof Bashir Ahmad Ganaie is notable in this regard. He has done massive research on a few medicinal plants which are believed to be very useful for the dreaded cancer disease,” he says.

Prof Ali says that the research had given more options for scholars and scientists to work on Kashmir’s traditional plant varieties.

Keeping in view the importance of research and development, the CORD was established by KU in 1979, with the prior concern to organise and conduct an interdisciplinary research project.

The centre has been quite active in establishing a multi-disciplinary and inter-institutional research base and significant contributions have been made in priority research areas of Lake Conservation, Wetland Management, Fisheries Development, Plant Pathology, Plant Tissue Culture, Horticulture, Medicinal plants, Wildlife Conservation, Forest Ecology, and Phytochemistry. He informed that the centre was conceptualised to facilitate a meaningful transition for an aspiring scholar from acquiring knowledge to an advanced stage of its creation and application.

Through various academic exchange programmes, the Centre aims at establishing a universal nature and legitimacy of a research culture, to motivate scholars to cultivate an aptitude for intercultural and transnational communications in scientific spheres.

SHRINKING FOOD BASKETS

Prof Zeerak argues that predominately the food baskets have remarkably shrunken and people were sustaining on a few numbered food plants against dozens of native landraces in cereals, wild herbs, fruits, and pseudo-cereals on which Kashmir’s ancestors were sustaining for centuries.

“The other substitute staple food crops like Italian Millets (Pinga), Little Millets (Shoule), Buckwheats (Troumba), Local Barleys (Whishka), and Amaranths (Ganhaar) though having high nutritious status, have been replaced by high-yielding yet less-nutritious modern wheat and rice varieties,” he says. “Nowadays, although people have enough protein and calories in their diet yet a hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies can be noticed in human populations as our diet lacks quality, rather than quantity.”

Notably, within the northwestern part of the Himalayas, Jammu and Kashmir has rich and unique flora and fauna. Though being a hilly and mostly mountainous region with varied altitudinal gradients and a variety of macro and micro-climatic regimes, a wide range of economically-important plants thrive on its soils in wild as well as cultivated forms.

Prof Zeerak says, for centuries, the native farmer’s selections among the useful indigenous plants for biomass, from the natural stands and the selective introductions from the Mediterranean, Europe, and other adjacent temperate areas, in the past, have also resulted in the accumulation and diversification of enormous plant genetic variability.

“As a result, it is one of the leading biomasses producing regions of India and is known for the export of its fruit and nuts, vegetables, medicinal and aromatic herbs, condiments like saffron, fur, silk and woolen products, wood carving, and wood crafts, wicker works, sports goods, and joinery items,” he says. “The vast plant genetic resources of the region, existing in its different gene pools, thus hold vast potential for current and future users for sustained development and wellbeing of its inhabitants.” As a consequence, in addition to the classic diseases of malnutrition, the poorer, especially in the urban areas, are increasingly suffering from non-communicable diseases like obesity, cardiovascular diseases, Type II Diabetes, and cancers once thought of as diseases of affluence.

“Increasing evidence suggests that narrowing down the food basket is the cause and a diverse diet is a key to contain these ailments,” Prof Zeerak informed.

LOSING BIODIVERSITY?

Prof Zeerak says that as the world was “losing biodiversity” it had become increasingly clear that it would prove catastrophic to the ecology of the region, food security, and livelihood resources of its farming communities.

“Given the visible losses, global climatic changes, and adoption of international agreements related to sustainable use and conservation of plant genetic resources, there was an urgent need to document, characterise and conserve the leftover native biodiversity,” he says. “Besides that awareness also needs to be created particularly within farming communities regarding the value of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.”

Prof Zeerak informed that the task was undertaken by him as a SKUAST-Kashmir scientist as he carried out a scientific identification and documentation of the existing plant resources, especially in respect of local heritage-cum-economic plants growing across Kashmir Himalaya in wild as well as cultivated forms.

“The local name, habit, and habitat and the traditional use and the related indigenous technical knowledge was also recorded for every plant,” he says. “In addition, the existing varietal diversity in all cultivated food plants and their status of cultivation were also recorded.” Prof Zeerak’s research work has been presented in the form of a book, ‘The Economic and Heritage Plants of Kashmir Himalaya’ which enlists about 1300 plant species and 500 crop varieties.

He says that the Division of Genetics and Plant Breeding, Faculty of Agriculture, SKUAST-K is one of the first divisions of the university to engage in teaching, research, and extension activities in the field of crop improvement. The division was earlier named Division of Plant Breeding and Genetics but following ICAR guidelines, it was renamed Division of Genetics and Plant Breeding in 2015. In the book, the plant species are arranged in alphabetical order of their scientific names, followed by their synonyms, respective plant families, then their English, Hindi, Kashmiri, and Ladakhi names, and lastly their status of occurrence and cultivation.

“I hope that the book in the form of a virtual dictionary will be very useful to the students and research workers, especially those interested in agri-horticultural biodiversity, ethnobotany as well as the culture of the region,” he says. “The plant diversity documented should also prove helpful to conservationists and planners for devising future strategies in the conservation and sustainable utilisation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and also in guaranteeing livelihood resources and cultural identities of the inhabitants of the regions. Importantly, the document, first of its kind, should serve as documentary proof of local and indigenous plant species and related technical knowledge and also protect the legal rights of farming communities over them in light of the latest patent laws at national and international levels.”

Meanwhile, the scientists and scholars have urged the people and youngsters, and plant lovers of the Himalayan region to rise to the occasion and promote public awareness about the economic and heritage plants and their importance towards Kashmir’s development and cultural identity and to be a part of collective efforts for conservation of this heritage so that Kashmir’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture as well as Kashmir’s cultural and social identities are preserved for posterity.

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